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Doctor Who - Earth Story

Review by: 
Head Cheeze
Release Date: 
1966/1984
Studio: 
2 Entertain
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Rex Tucker
Michael Owen Morris
Cast: 
William Hartnell
Peter Purves
Jackie Lane
Peter Davison
Janet Fielding
Movie: 
4
Extras: 
4
Bottom Line: 
4

This rather random pairing of a 1966 first Doctor adventure starring William Hartnell and a beautifully mounted but ultimately fairly average 1984 two-parter featuring fifth Doctor Peter Davison, feels a bit like an attempt to mop up a few leftovers and stragglers in the DVD range. There’s not much to connect the two thematically, apart from the fact that, er … well, they both take place on Earth! Nevertheless, their pairing here, in a 2-disc DVD set from 2 Entertain, means anyone wishing to complete their Peter Davison collection of Doctor Who discs with this last story from his tenure to be released on DVD, will find they’re also now obliged to find space for a once much-derided black & white musical comedy Western from Hartnell’s ‘difficult’ third season. It’s tempting to think it’s all a plot to offload what used regularly to be believed in fandom to be the worst Doctor Who story ever made. Mind, that was back in the days when there were only a handful of stories available on VHS, and most people hadn’t actually ever seen it; a period when the myth began to take hold that “The Gunfighters” (for that is the story of which we speak) had obtained the lowest viewing figures in the series’ history when it was originally broadcast. Getting to sit down and watch it now for the first time, turns out to be a surprisingly happy experience though – for, lo and behold, it’s actually pretty good!

THE GUNFIGHTERS (1966)

Fresh from their bizarre adventure with Michael Gough’s Celestial Toymaker, the Doctor (William Hartnell) and his two companions Dodo (Jackie Lane) and Steven (Peter Purves) find themselves in 19th Century America when the TARDIS materialises in the frontier town of Tombstone, Arizona – two days before the gunfight at the OK Corral! The Doctor is more than usually grumpy because he’s suffering from acute toothache, and rather than getting straight back inside the TARDIS and chancing their next destination to be a futuristic paradise where dental surgery technology has reached the zenith of painless extraction methods, the trio dress up in ye olde Wild West clothes (obtained from the TARDIS’s haphazard wardrobe collection of costumes) and venture outside to find a dentist. While Steven and Dodo make a complete hash of trying to blend into the background at the nearby Last Chance Saloon when pretending to be part of a travelling singing troupe, the Doctor totters over to the barber-surgeons to have his throbbing molar tended to. Unfortunately, the Doctor’s dentist turns out to be none other than Doc Holliday himself (Anthony Jacobs)! Over at the saloon, Steven and Dodo are overheard by the Clanton Brothers talking about their friend ‘the Doctor’. The brothers have come to town in order to take vengeance on Doc Holliday for killing their brother Reuben, and now mistakenly believe the time-traveling companions to be Holliday’s accomplices. They keep the two occupied while they send their hired hand Seth Harper (Shane Rimmer) over to the Barber surgeons to identify their nemesis and lure him into a trap. The real Holliday is alerted to what is happening by his companion, the Saloon barroom singer Kate (Sheena Marshe), and sets up the unsuspecting Doctor as his fall guy double while he makes his escape, giving the Time Lord his personalised holster and pistol to complete the deception, then sending him over to the saloon to meet his doom at the hands of the murderous assassins …

Historical drama was always considered an important element in the early conception of DOCTOR WHO. Stories like “Marco Polo” (now lost apart from its audio track and production stills) famously tried to make the adventures of the Doctor and his companions -- no accident that they then consisted of a tutor of history and a science teacher! -- historically accurate as well as eventful, exciting stories that a general audience could relate to. The two considerations were always, in some respects, in tension with each other though, and the programme frequently had to fend off accusations of playing somewhat fast and loose with historical accuracy. But, despite the general belief which has grown up since, that the historical dramas always played second fiddle to the science fiction/fantasy stories once the phenomena of the Daleks took off early on in the first series’ run (thus securing the show’s future), in actual fact they continued to make up a large part of the story output for the first few seasons, and frequently proved just as popular with audiences during the pinnacle of the show’s popularity in the early 1960s.

It was during the second series that producer Verity Lambert began to push writers to experiment with the show’s format, and one of the results of this was the production of “The Romans” – a story set in AD 64 that eschewed any attempt at maintaining the illusion of ‘historical accuracy’ by pitching itself as a comedy farce, more concerned with highlighting popular myths about ancient Rome than educating its young audience. “The Gunfighters” emerged well into the show’s third series, during which Lambert had left and producer John Wiles and script editor Donald Tosh had taken charge. It was a fraught time in DOCTOR WHO history: viewing figures were on the wane and behind-the-scenes tensions were escalating. Wiles had a poor relationship with the show’s irascible leading man and the production team had been unhappy with the amount of pre-commissioned material Lambert had left in her wake, compromising their own vision of the show as a more intelligent science fiction series. Both Wiles and Tosh resigned soon after commissioning “The Gunfighters” from writer Donald Cotton, and the new team of Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis had yet another vision of the show, which was entirely at odds with its more recent serious historical stories such as “The Massacre”. Thus “The Gunfighters” ended up becoming more of a comedy and a farce and less concerned with painting a picture that was in any way an accurate historical representation of reality, than anything which had appeared on the show before.

In fact, under the direction of Rex Tucker and encouraged by Innes Lloyd, who recommended he look to the recent Academy Award-winning Jane Fonda/Lee Marvin comedy-Western “Cat Ballou” for a model of how to approach Cotton’s material, “The Gunfighters” becomes something of a new departure for the series and begins to show just how versatile its format could be when put to the test. Rather than showing any real concern with myth or history, the story is more a postmodern micky take of genre conventions – more “Carry on Cowboy” than “Gunfight at the OK Corral”, which treats the entire spectacle like a self-aware pantomime that’s continually winking at the viewing audience. The supporting cast -- mainly Tucker’s repertory players -- accordingly essay a range of over-the-top performances and absurd exaggerated accents, and the entire story is musically narrated by an unseen balladeer (Lynda Baron) who’s Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, written by Tristram Cary, punctuates scenes with ironical musical comment on the action, acutely emphasising the story’s very artificiality and its constructed nature in a way that still feels shockingly bold.

This is DOCTOR WHO as full blown, no-holds-barred comedy – and its best recommendation is that it seems to liberate the acting of the show’s increasingly troubled and unhappy leading man: Hartnell gives a brilliant, fully engaged comic performance throughout here, for the first time in a long while. He’s comically disgusted with his companions when they dress up in ridiculous Grand Ole Opry costumes from the TARDIS’s wardrobe, and strut about as though they were in a low rent TV Western (which funnily enough, of course, they are -- or at least a parody of one!) and he’s hilarious alongside guest artist Anthony Jacobs as Doc Holliday when he realises the only anaesthetic that’s on offer at Holliday’s dental surgery is a clonk on the head or a bottle of Whisky! The story is quite happy to accentuate the unlikeliness of its representations of Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 rather than try to create the TV illusion of believability: companions Steven and Dodo are capable of becoming barroom entertainers with apparently no effort at all. “I’ll have a bash!” chirrups Dodo (Jackie Lane’s character finally begins to make sense here), as she sits down at the Saloon piano and knocks out a note perfect rendition of the Last Chance Saloon theme, while Steven awkwardly sings along. Perhaps because of this engaged comedic tone, the story is actually able to get away with being far more violent than usual, with characters being brutally gunned down, Steven at one point being lynched and threatened with a public hanging, and the whole story winding up in a prolonged shoot out and then a long slow pan over the resulting carnage at the OK Corral. Tucker’s direction is sometimes uneven but he’s able to get some interesting camera-set-ups and the editing seems far more fluid than is often the case in these shot as-live Riverside Studios productions from the era. Special mention also has to go to production designer Barry Newbery who creates a wonderfully condensed mini-version of the traditional clichéd TV Western set -- with its swing door Saloon and down-at-heel hotels -- in the cramped confines of Riverside, as well as Ealing Studios for the filmed sections.

Why has “The Gunfighters” been saddled (sorry!) with such a poor reputation for so long? It’s hard to say. The final episode did receive the lowest audience appreciation percentage figures for any episode in the series history, but there were actually a great many more stories with much lower viewing figures during the sixties. There must be a suspicion that some people never fully realised that it was actually meant to be funny, and that the whole thing was a self-aware parody of the unending series of unrealistic Westerns that then proliferated on the television of the 1960s. The whole idea that anyone might even attempt something as postmodern as this in 1966, let alone on an afternoon family series, seems incredible now, but it serves as a timely reminder of one of the main reasons why the series is still on the air today: it can go anywhere, do anything, encompass any genre and accommodate virtually any approach to a whole range of subject matter. “The Gunfighters” is one vivid celebration of that amazing fact which, although it’s far from perfect, sets a terrific precedent with its daring and should be held up as an inspiring example of what makes DOCTOR WHO the institution it has become today rather than an embarrassing misconceived failure.

A fine collection of extras kicks off with the obligatory commentary, ably moderated by Toby Hadoke. The participants include the always vocal Peter Purves (Steven) along with guest actors Shane Rimmer (Seth Harper), David Graham (Charlie the barman) and Richard Beale (Bat Masterson), and production assistant Tristran de Vere Cole. An interesting discussion this, as Purves recalls a certain antipathy towards this story which largely revolved around a series of unfortunate circumstances which all came together at the time to produce an uneasy atmosphere for the series regulars. For one thing Purves had recently learned he was being written out, as was Jackie Lane – a not uncommon experience for Doctor Who companions at the time, there being a particularly high turn-over of regular cast members in the series’ third year. Hartnell, having seen off the previous producer John Wiles, was not altogether much of a fan of director Rex Tucker either, and Purves found him unusually uncommunicative and disdainful of the regular cast, preferring to offer his notes and helpful direction to his troupe of regular repertory actors who’d been cast in many of the guest actor slots. Purves also takes the opportunity to have a good old moan about the BBC’s antiquated pay structure in the 1960s. However, after watching the serial back again it seems even Purves becomes aware that negative personal issues had coloured his perception of the actual story, and that it actually works better than he’d ever realised at the time. The other members of the cast have a different perception of events, it has to be said, and much praise goes out to Tucker from their quarter, while Hartnell (who Purves always got along fine with) could apparently seem a bit stand-offish to incoming guest artists.  

The End of the Line: Rather than the usual making of documentary, this 35 minute feature covers the whole of the series’ third season. This makes for quite a colourful set of anecdotes since, as we’ve already established, the show was going through something of an upheaval, with cast and production crew regularly resigning or being replaced throughout the run. The documentary briefly runs through the making of each of the stories that make up this season and also covers the remaining Hartnell stories of the fourth, with an emphasis on the juicy behind-the-scenes problems. Here we find out how Vickie, played by Maureen O’Brien, was accidently written out of the show because incoming script editor Donald Tosh mistakenly thought the actress wanted to leave! William Hartnell’s increasing ill-health is discussed, and how it led to Peter Purves having always to be on hand to fill in the blanks that were left by any missing dialogue Hartnell had forgotten. There’s mention of the infamous and ill-judged ‘breaking of the fourth wall’ which occurred at the end of a special Christmas episode, when the Doctor looks down the camera and  actually wishes viewers at home a happy Christmas. After Purves gets written out of the show, the same fate as befell Maureen O’Brien (coming back from holiday to find she’s been given the push) was meted out to Jackie Lane by producer Innes Lloyd and finally, her replacement Anneke Wills explains how difficult she and her co-star Michael Craze found working with William Hartnell, singling out his politics (the actor was a notorious anti-Semite and homophobe) as one of the major reasons. They were, according to Wills, jubilant to be paired with Patrick Troughton after Hartnell finally reluctantly agreed to leave the series.

Tomorrow’s Times Today – The First Doctor: Another episode in the DVD range’s on-going series in which the history of the show is examined in terms of what was being written about the series in the contemporary newspapers at the time. This time we get a complete overview of the William Hartnell years. There’s some treasurable material in here including the Daleks being described as “cross little dustbins” by the Financial Times and a review from the Times Literary Supplement of the Target adaptation of “The Crusades”, in which the reviewer discovers hints of sexual fetishism in an added scene -- not seen in the TV version -- in which Barbara is threatened with a whipping! The first Romana, Mary Tamm, narrates.

Photo Gallery: A selection of production stills play out over the complete version of the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, sung by Lynda Baron.

Comprehensive on-screen text production notes, programme subtitles and Adobe format PDF files of Radio Times Listings complete a fine disc which is set to further rehabilitate a once maligned story that actually displays the series at its most innovative and daring.

 

THE AWAKENING (1984)

There’s a classic DOCTOR WHO story to be told somewhere inside “The Awakening”, but unfortunately it seems to struggle in this two-part adaptation to find proper expression. Which is a shame, because this 1984 adventure looks lovely -- with some extensive and well-mounted location work around Dorset and Hampshire that feels like it was shot in classic Avengers Land, terrific sets by Barry Newbery (yep – the same one who created Tombstone, Arizona in a cramped BBC studio for “The Gunfighters” back in 1966, and had worked on the show now and then since its beginnings -- so maybe this box set should have been titled ‘The Barry Newbery Tales’!) and the basic outline of a story that manages to distil something of the essence of Nigel Kneale with its dormant-alien-force-from-the-past-affects-the-present theme, and the spirit of folk horror classics such as “The Witchfinder General and “The Wicker Man”.

The first episode sets up all this quite nicely: the picturesque English village of Little Hodcombe is playing host to the organised English civil war re-enactments of dominant village statesman Sir George Hutchinson (Denis Lil, making the most of the civil war theme to take on a convincing persona that combines the appearance of Charles I, Vincent Price as Mathew Hopkins, and a dash of Jason King!), in memory of a devastating battle that took place there in 1643 between the opposing Royalist and Parliamentarian forces. But local schoolteacher Jane Hampden (Polly James) is uneasy about the level of control Hutchinson seems to have over the whole village: everyone has been commandeered to take part, all of them dressed in period costume as either Cavaliers or Roundheads, and the whole village seems caught up in a kind of hysteria. The beginning of the first episode cunningly suggests we’re dealing with a time slip story when Hampden first confronts a troop of Parliamentarians on horseback, only for it to be revealed that this is 1984 and we are witnessing a re-enactment taking place.   

The Doctor (Peter Davison) and his companions Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) join the fray when they arrive in Little Hodcombe to visit Tegan’s grandfather, Andrew Verny, a renowned historian – only to find he has gone missing and Sir George seems heavily involved in the disappearance. Soon the Doctor’s investigations reveal that breaches in time are indeed taking place between 1643 and 1984, one of them enabling a peasant boy called Will Chandler (Keith Jayne), hiding from Roundheads in 1643, to emerge from his priest hole hideout in the village church in 1984!

While the Doctor, Will and Jane investigate the church interiors after escaping Hutchinson and his acolytes, Tegan and Turlough discover something strange growing on the wall of the TARDIS control room. Eventually, the Doctor connects all the strange events to a 17th century carving of the Devil on the wall  inside the church: in actual fact it depicts an alien invasion weapon ‘a living being re-engineered as an instrument of war’ called a Malus, which feeds off the psychic energy caused by conflict to charge itself up. Hutchinson and Verny discovered it behind the walls of the church where it had lain dormant for centuries; but the unstable Hutchinson imprisoned Verny and began organising the village war games with the intention of recreating the atmosphere of civil war England to energise the Malus, believing it would give him untold power as a weapon. Meanwhile, Tegan is captured and is forced to become the Queen of the May and set to be burned as a sacrifice in the village square. The psychic energy already created by Hutchinson’s civil war re- enactments have enabled the Malus to take physical form as a goblin-like creature on the TARDIS wall, and a huge Malus head that belches steam and has glowing eyes is emerging from inside the church! Soon it will have enough power to enslave the planet.

The idea that the once-urgent conflicts of the past might come back, out of context, to haunt the present is an interesting one and the story starts by invoking it subtly, having many of the names of its contemporary characters echoing those associated with 17th century civil war history. Thus we have a preponderance of Vernys, Hampdens and Wolseys inhabiting present day Little Hodcombe and suggesting a continuous link with the past. At heart this is a ghost story that’s being expressed in high concept science fiction terms and has the potential to be extremely atmospheric: there are apparitions, ‘demonic’ presences and the past invading the present through gaps in time. The period costumes of Jackie Southern are particularly fine and taken with Newbery’s excellent church interior designs and the evocative locations shot on 16mm film, the story recalls fan favourite “The Daemons” with its quaint village setting and the idea (borrowed from Nigel Kneale) of an alien presence being mistaken for the Devil. Polly James and Keith Jayne become de facto companions for this one story and writer Eric Pringle makes them notably more central to the plot than either Tegan or Turlough, the latter following his usual pattern of having virtually nothing to do with the story and looking like something of a spare part, while Tegan ends up becoming a potential sacrifice victim in a small-scale Wicker Man denouement.  Maybe the Doctor is actually bored of the pair by this stage, for at one point he packs them off to the TARDIS with the flimsy excuse that ‘they’ll be safer there’ and then goes on to do all his investigating with his much more interesting new friends Jane and Will. Polly James becomes the second Liver Bird actress to come across well as an older female companion for the fifth Doctor after Nerys Hughes previously impressed all in the story “Kinda”.

What stops this story becoming the classic it seems it should be is the extremely muddled and ungraceful way it’s been constructed. These days we’re used to complicated stories being told in fifty minutes. The pace of modern DOCTOR WHO is always unflagging and its writers have to become expert practitioners in the art of narrative economy and fluid storytelling. Well, you won’t find much of that here. At two 25 minute episodes this runs at about the same length as one episode of the present day show, yet it’s full of rushed, garbled  lines of explanatory dialogue, unexplained gaps in narrative and muddled ideas that are never adequately fleshed out. It’s hard not to like it – the supporting cast are all excellent and first time director Michael Owen Morris does good work combining the picturesque locations and the studio work. If blame is to assigned anywhere it should surely be with script editor Eric Saward: the story was paired down from a four parter to a two parter because it was felt there was not enough incident to justify the longer running time, but there are still too many poorly sketched ideas hanging around that should surely have been removed. Who’s the one-eyed hunchback figure that pops up for two scenes as if he’s going to be important, but then is never seen or heard from again, for instance? Ultimately, “The Awakening” is a good idea that’s been embarked on and attacked by the cast and crew with spirited élan but which was never going to come off with a script in the parlous state this one is in.

Once again, a respectable bunch of extras is set in motion with a commentary from script editor Eric Saward and director Michael Owen Morris, with moderation ably accomplished by Toby Hadoke. Both Polly James and Peter Davison were apparently unable to make the session at the last moment, so this comes across as rather a dryer commentary than normal, but it does the job of explaining the background to the commissioning of the story and Morris explains how this became his first gig as director after having previously been a production assistant on the Tom Baker story “The Pirate Planet”.

Return to Little Hodcombe: A quirky little making of documentary that sends cast and crew back to the shooting locations in Dorset and Hampshire, and we get some local colour in the form of some chirpy elderly locals who remember the excitement generated in their villages when DOCTOR WHO came to town.

Making a Malus is a short featurette in which Malus designer Tony Harding and the modelmaker Richard Gregory who put together the prop, encounter their creation once more for the first time in 26 years. It is now owned by DOCTOR WHO fan Paul Burrows, who apparently keeps this massive devil-gargoyle face with glowing eyes on his living room wall! It takes all sorts!

Now and Then: Comparing the village locations in 1984 with how they appear today.

From the Cutting Room Floor: Eleven minutes of extended and deleted scenes from the timecoded VHS of the original edit.

The Golden Egg Awards: Another chance to marvel at just how shit telly in the 1980s could be, putting any of DOCTOR WHO’s less shining moments in their proper context: this is an excerpt from “The Late, Late Breakfast Show” in which an always unbearably smug Noel Edmonds doles out an award to Peter Davison for an outtake from “The Awakening” in which an excitable horse totally demolishes one of Barry Newbery’s sets. Given that that this rubbish eighties magazine show later managed to accidently kill one of its own viewers in a poorly thought-out stunt that went wrong, this seems a comparatively minor misadventure!

A photo gallery, a chance to listen to the musical soundtrack in isolation, extensive text production notes and feature subtitles -- plus the usual Radio Times listings in PDF form, rounds off the disc.

Next time: Sylvester McCoy in “Paradise Towers” – see you then!

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